THE CHURCH IN FELTWELL
by Rev. A. W. G. Cope, M.A., Rector.
It is not often realised that for most of the time that Christian worship has taken place in Feltwell, there has been only one Church, namely St. Nicholas. It is twice as old as St. Mary's, the Parish Church. I do not mean by this that the actual building you see now was standing in its present form 600 years before St. Marys was built, but that the first place of worship was founded then. It was dedicated to St. Nicholas no doubt as the patron Saint of Sailors; for at that time, and, in fact, until quite recent years, it stood on its little hill overlooking the most dangerous salt marshes, which at high tide, and especially at spring tides, brought the sea water up to the village. It was not until 1632 that the Drainage was undertaken, which added so many square miles of Fen land to the country. In about the year 1086 when this part of the country was visited for the Domesday Survey, St, Nicholas was the only Church in the Hundred of Grimshoe, the actual reference is very interesting by reason of the reference to trial by ordeal, "In fiat wella I ecclesia hanc columpniatur Godric ad feudum Rad. ad. jacuit Stohu et inde vult unus homo Godric portare juditium."
In the space of this short article it would be quite impossible to give all the sources and evidence, which exist; but, if we had a complete picture, I think that the story would be very much as follows. At a very early date, possibly, as tradition asserts, at the end of the seventh century, the first Saxon Church was built. A Saxon shaft of beautiful design can be seen in the present building in the most easterly pier on the north side, this must have been carefully preserved and built in, and, I like to think, that it is part of this original building, which it may well be. In clear weather the Cathedral Church at Ely can be seen from St, Nicholas hill, 16 miles distant across the Fens. It was there in 1071 that the Saxons tinder Hereward assisted by Edwin and Morcar made the last stands against the Conqueror and held up his complete subjugation of the country. It was then, as now, that the little Church and Village of Feltwell stood on the edge of the high ground and overlooked the swamps that led to Ely, to which I have already referred. It would be very surprising if the Conqueror did not treat this village, as he treated all others which offered any threat to his conquest, in burning the whole place down. I think he did, and replaced the Church with a Norman one no doubt replacing the Saxon Rector with a Norman Priest as soon as the resistance was over. Of this Norman Church quite a lot remains, particularly the very early undecorated arch leading into the tower. I have no doubt that the eastern end of this Church terminated in an apse, which either fell down, or was taken down, and replaced by a tiny Early English chancel, which survived until 1862, when the Rector of that time had it pulled down, and the eastern wall of the nave built up.
The Norman nave was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1494, to meet the expense of which the Pope granted an Indulgence of 40 days. In 1898 the tower fell down, and the peal of bells which for centuries had rung out over the Fens were silenced. By some curious chance the oldest of all, No. 4, is completely undamaged. Bells have always been held in great, veneration, and were considered to be great sources of protection. They were always solemnly dedicated, blessed and named. This one to which I refer is the Etheldreda, its beautiful rhyming verse reads, "Etheldreda Bona Tibi Dantur Plurima Dona." I should dearly love to hear her iron tongue ring out again especially on Christmas night and at the New Year, but alas, we have not got the money to do so, or, unless they were removed to St. Mary's, the tower to hang them in, and so they remain silent on the floor.
We think of St. Mary's, our Parish Church, as an old Church, and so it is, going back to the end of the 13th century, but St. Nicholas goes back to a date as far beyond the date of the building of St. Mary's, as St. Mary's itself is from our time. Although we know the names of the Rectors of St. Nicholas from a much earlier date, the first Rector of St. Mary's that we know of, instituted in 1303, has such a fine name that I must mention it, he was Nicholas de Coulteshale, and he stayed here for over 30 years.
St. Mary's was enlarged and ruined by the same Rector that pulled down the Chancel of St. Nicholas in the middle of the nineteenth century, but there is just enough left to understand something of this beautiful example of a Norfolk long thin Church, if one stands so that the north aisle is not visible. In the south nave aisle the old stairs to the rood loft can be seen, coming down through the thickness of the wall into what was the Chapel of St. Catherine. The Screen was spoilt by placing the carved front of the loft on the top. The Chancel is very fine, but the windows were unfortunately filled with some very bad stained glass, which was made in Paris in the last century. Two interesting brasses from vault entrances in the nave have been placed on the wall, one to Francis Hetht who died in 1470 and the other to Margaret Moundford who died in 1520. There are two other monuments to the Moundford family in stone, which are beautifully executed and finely lettered. The ancient stone sedilia takes up the whole of the south wall of the sanctuary. But perhaps the most interesting features of this Church are the very richly carved Oak roof of the nave, and the old pews, which are amongst some of the best in the country of that period. I have never sat in them, but, I imagine, that it would be impossible even in the longest and most boring sermon to even feel drousy.
In conclusion may I say this to those of you who live in Feltwell. In your Churches you have a priceless heritage. You didn't build them, you inherited them from your ancestors. If anything happened to them you couldn't for all your modern knowledge and techniques replace them with anything half so fine. They are yours, look after them, and if you can do nothing else, see that they are handed on to the next generation in at least as good a condition as you found them. This I am sure you will do; and to all, including our friends in the Methodist Church, who have financial obligations which we in the Church of England are only just beginning to realise, may I express my grateful thanks for the great and generous help you have always given, whenever I have had occasion to ask.
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